Bordeaux, France — Maybe you’ve been to Bordeaux, tucked in to the southwest corner of France, some 350 miles from Paris. No doubt you made a point of riding the sleek city tram to the revitalized Bacalan neighborhood to peruse the Anouk Legendre- and Nicolas Desmazières-designed Cité du Vin with its shimmering gold aluminum facade that, some say, symbolizes a Sauternes swishing around a wine glass.
You probably went across the street to les Halles de Bacalan, dedicated to Bordelaise edibles and quaffables, and got a wheel of la petite rouelle, a goat cheese that looks remarkably like a coconut doughnut, and a loaf of walnut bread to eat along the River Garonne.
Or maybe a friend told you the thing to do is to go to the back of the food hall and search for the oyster bar, L’Huitrier, and order the special: six fat, juicy Arcachon fines and a glass of crisp white Bordeaux, perhaps the Chateau la Tourette, for 15 euros (about $17).
If you were near the end of your trip, you might have browsed the chic shops popping up around the Quai de Bacalan, once-abandoned old wine warehouses, and searched out Echoppe de la Lune, an upscale gourmet shop that sells the region’s unique comestibles such as Louit Frères mustard and Sel de Château, lavender-colored sea salt flavored with Cabernet.
If you had a few days to spare, perhaps you decided to rent a car and meander through Dordogne Périgord, part of the Aquitaine region, an hour’s drive east of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux’s sleepy country cousin is known for what the Bordelaise call the douceur de vivre — the gentle way of life. This is where you came to the obvious conclusion that the Dordogne and Bordeaux seem nothing alike despite their familial relationship.
The Dordogne is to Bordeaux what California’s Central Coast is to Napa/Sonoma. Yes, they both make excellent wines and the food is exceptional. But the similarities stop there.
Bordeaux is the Grand Hôtel, across from the opera house, and its Gordon Ramsay restaurants. It’s about entrecôte Bordelaise à la moelle, a grilled rib-eye served with a red wine and bone marrow reduction, and lamproie à la Bordelaise, a rich winter stew made with lamprey, leeks, lots of butter and perhaps bacon.
The Dordogne, on the other hand, is all about fermes auberges — farmhouses converted to guest rooms — surrounded by groves of plum or walnut trees, and their family-run restaurants, where madame takes your order, monsieur cooks, mamie pours the anonymous vin rouge, and the children, curious about their guests, race from the kitchen with baskets of crusty country bread and a chipped crock of homemade butter.
A quick glance at the menu on the chalk board reveals the region’s general all-duck-no-choice selection. Do they make pâté and rillettes and saucisson out of duck for an appetizer? They do.
For the entrée, might they cook a leg and thigh confit or, perhaps, sear the breast and bathe it in a reduction of grated orange peel, cinnamon, star anise and red wine? Most assuredly.
If you desire something lighter, is there a beak-to-tail salad, Landaise, heaped with foie gras, duck confit and the poor bird’s organ meats? If you’re lucky. But, please, don’t bother to ask for entrecôte; that’s not what they do here.
Bordeaux is about the Philippe Starck-designed Château les Carmes Haut-Brion, with its ship’s prow winery, plopped in the middle of a river like a metal-hulled cargo vessel.
Dordogne is about peasant-built castles perched on cliffs and bastide towns, medieval villages with timber-framed houses and fortified outer walls.
Bordeaux is about jazz festivals and stunning fireworks on Bastille Day launched from barges floating down the Garonne.
The Dordogne is about la Félibrée, a 100-year-old celebration of the ancient Occitan culture that rotates annually among the region’s villages and can best be described as the Rose Parade-meets-Renaissance festival.
On streets decorated overhead with thousands of bright plastic flowers, old and young, in homemade folk costumes with lots of lace and embroidery, play button accordions and a sort of French bagpipe called a cabrette while everyone dances like a stilted marionette.
The finale of the early summer festival is a traditional communal lunch, perhaps held inside a monastery, where neighbors remind one another to add a healthy splash of red wine to the last of their garlic soup and quaff it cabroù, which means to “drink as a goat.” You will be served foie gras and duck confit in a soupy broth of cassoulet beans, followed by a plate of nutty, velvety Rocamadour goat cheese.
Dordogne does have its share of sophistication. No doubt you’ve discovered that nearly everyone who runs a château or busy bistrot in the region came here, intentionally, from somewhere else — often Paris.
Stephanie Berbessou, who, after years of marketing Laughing Cow cheeses, moved to Saint-Vincent-de-Cosse, a stone’s throw outside Beynac, and bought a 17th century stone farmhouse that she’s converted into a charming guest house, les Hauts de St. Vincent, with five themed chambers. Once or twice a week, Berbessou teaches guests how to make the region’s famed magret de canard, which they then enjoy for lunch.
And there’s Jean-Michel Bardet, a one-star Michelin chef who, after a stint at the Ocean by Olivier Bellin in Hong Kong, was drawn back to the Dordogne with his wife, Isabelle, to helm the restaurant at Moulin de l’Abbaye in Brantôme, an island village of just 2,000 in the middle of the Dronne River. He serves a seasonal menu based on local ingredients: black truffles from Lalbenque, Périgord honey, cèpes from Rochevideau and, of course, the many wonders of duck.
Similarly, after 15 years working for an upscale luxury hotel chain in France, Catherine and Yves Staebell bought an 18th century castle in Annesse-et-Beaulieu and converted it into a four-star hotel, Château de Lalande.
As Catherine shows you to your oversize room decorated with French heirlooms, Yves creates indulgent dishes (yes, there will be duck) based on local ingredients such as smoked sturgeon, Périgord foie gras and creamy goat cheese marinated in olive oil.
And so, as you drive back to Bordeaux, perhaps you decide that the Dordogne is, in fact, different from her more royal wine-swilling cousin but just as delightful.
There is no opera house, true, but it seemed as if just about every château you stayed in not only offered a meal every bit as good as anything you could get in Bordeaux but also hot-air balloon rides with the requisite glass of Champagne after landing.
Which, when you think about it, is every bit as enjoyable as “The Barber of Seville,” n’est-ce pas?
THE BEST WAY TO PARIS
From LAX, Air France, Delta, Air Tahiti Nui and Norwegian offer nonstop service to Paris, and Delta, United, American, Aer Lingus, Lufthansa, Swiss and British offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfares from $710, including taxes and fees. From Paris, it’s about an hour’s flight to Bordeaux; the train takes less than three3 hours, from $22.
From Paris, it’s about an hour’s flight to Bordeaux; the train take less than three hours, from $22.
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel la Maison du Lierre Hôtel, 57 Rue Huguerie, Bordeaux, France. Rooms from $220.
InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hôtel, 2-5 Place de la Comedie, Bordeaux, France. Rooms from $335.
Châteaux de Lalande, 57 Route de Saint-Astier, Annesse-et-Beaulieu, France. Rooms from $212.
Hôtel de Bouilhac, Rue du Docteur Mazel, Montignac, France. Rooms from $160.
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurant Frida, 29 Rue Buhan, Bordeaux, France. Mediterranean-style bistro featuring tapas, $10-$20.
Le Moulin de l’Abbaye, 1 Rue Pierre de Bourdeilles, Brantôme, France. Focus on Dordogne’s products; Michelin-star cuisine, seasonal menu. $40-$70.
Le Bistro de l’Octroi, 111 Avenue de Selves, Sarlat-la-Canéda, France. Périgord standards such as duck in walnut sauce. Three-course menu from $22.
TO LEARN MORE
Aquitaine Tourism Board, 5 Place Jean Jaures, Bordeaux, France